What we see is not always what’s intended

September 26, 2014


We don’t all see the same thing.

Sure, we could be looking at the same situation, the same object, the same person, but what we see–what we actually perceive–is filtered by our life experiences and our beliefs.

Ask any cop; s/he will tell you that eye-witnesses can look at the same crime but each see something different. Happens all the time.

What we see is not always what’s intended.

I saw it recently in something I wrote about domestic violence.  Every reader had access to the same words on the screen, but some saw things that weren’t there.

Their perceptual filters deleted, distorted and even generalized concepts that weren’t necessarily intended.

Sometimes, their responses made the presence of those powerful filters obvious.

Anais Nin observed the same thing, when she said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

But we’re unaware that our experiences are filtered, most of us, anyway. We think our view is clear, the truth is straightforward.

In fact, it is rarely that simple.

I wonder what it would be like to consciously remove our perceptual filters. Take them off. And then look at something. Naked.

Or to examine our responses to something and figure out what about us has created a particular perception or response.

By the time we get to midlife, it’s mighty hard to do that. We’ve had decades to develop our points of view and our reactions and responses are almost knee-jerk.

Think about the people you know who think of their glass as half empty. Or half full. Those are learned responses to life.

When you write opinion, as I do from time to time, it’s not necessary that everyone agree. At least for me it’s not necessary.

But it does surprise me when readers see things that aren’t meant–and aren’t even there in black and white.

And it can be interesting trying to figure out what about that person has influenced their response.

Has anyone ever seen something that wasn’t meant in what you’ve written or said? What happened?


24 comments on “What we see is not always what’s intended
  1. Thinking about this just now myself as I wrote an opinion (almost rant) piece myself–something I try not to do often. I don’t know that we can remove our filters. We can let go of judgment and try to be more objective-but one of the problems with the written word is that we lack the visual cues of the writer which help give more nuance to the statement.

  2. Karen says:

    You’re right, Carol–projection is a bitch. 🙂 And can be very confusing, especially when you know what you mean!

  3. No, but I am pretty blunt. Hard to read “into” my postings when I lay it all out there. HA! xo love you!

  4. Barbara says:

    Yes, Carol, it’s happened often to me. I’ll write a blog post intending a certain point and comments will focus on or pick out something about it that was quite obscure to me. Perception really is such a big factor. It’s why I prefer actually speaking to people I’m interviewing rather than by email. NOT getting the point of view is much less likely to happen – and I enjoy where an actual conversation goes organically.

  5. Linda Roy says:

    That’s so true! We see things through our own lens. One thing that always stuck with me when my husband and I went to marriage counseling is when the therapist told us we each have our own movie that we’re each directing, and the other person is the supporting player. Each movie is different, from our own perspective, of course. And I look at life that way in general now.

  6. Ellen Dolgen says:

    Yes, usually were we stand depends on where we sit. If you hold up a notebook and two people were to stare at it. One might see silver spirals and the words notebook and the other person might see just a plan hardcover. Each person has to walk around the notebook to see what the other is describing. The older I get – the more I try to walk around the notebook. I am more able to accept now that the world is grey – not black and white. We can learn from each other.

  7. Although there’s no doubt that people can take meaning from the same statements differently based on our own experiences, it’s also true that the written word can be difficult to interpret. When you’re face to face with someone, you hear tone of voice and see facial expression. When you’re reading something, you’re more on your own to go off in a different direction with your reactions. There are fewer cues to the intended meaning.

  8. This just happened to me Carol! As a mistaken reader…I am sorry to report.

    Something I read on-line, one of those gross crowd baiting headlines triggered an emotion inside me. The emotion was anger. Anger that, when I read the actual article the headline pointed to, painted over the author’s words. I read what my brain expected–not her words–my emotions. And unlike me, rather than re-read the author’s words, I took my emotion to one of my Facebook pages and vented my anger.

    One of the page members asked about my anger, I think she recognized it as out of character for what she had experienced with me over the past 4 years. Her question sparked a wonderful conversation and it led me to re-read the article with fresh eyes. Naked as you describe it. WOW. Was I glad I did. Even though there was complete truth in what I said when I vented, that truth had nothing to do with the article, and everything to do with the headline.

    The thing of it is, my anger was a result of pent up experiences, times where I could have said something, but chose not too. When we don’t address an injustice as it happens? It has potential to become a wound inside. Worse it may fester.

    I don’t remember if I read your piece about DV, (I read so many) but based on this post I have no doubt that readers brought their life experiences to the reading room. When it comes to DV the one thing I can say for sure is this… there are as many ways to look at it as there are people. And really isn’t that true of everything? I love the Anais Nin quote, she was a genius.

    No matter where we go, there we are. 🙂 Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  9. It is amazing that 10 people can look at the same exact thing and see 10 totally different things. It’s very hard not to look through your own personal lens.

  10. Ruth Curran says:

    I do color things with my glass over flowing perspective and my direct approach. Annoys the crap out of some but at least you don’t walk away from me surprised that I made lemonade or saying “I wonder what she meant by that”.

    There are some instances where I would love to live, for a few minutes, with other filters firmly in place – not colored by my own experience or perspective. Just to see. There are other perspectives that scare me though, and I just don’t want to know or experience where “that” comes from. It might be interesting but I certainly don’t want to bring “that” to my life.

    You made me think again Carol! Thanks so much!

  11. Mary says:

    Everyone interprets things differently, and for this exact reason I like to speak with friends/family on the phone. Just recently, a friend text me something that I didn’t want to take in the wrong way. I picked up the phone and invited her over for a cup of coffee. I’m sure if I would have answered in a text we would have not been friends today.

  12. Lana says:

    I have had comments left on my blog posts that seem, to me, to be so out in left field. But I really do try to be open and see others points of view. It’s impossible not to be colored by our life experiences – but that’s what makes the world go around! Have a wonderful weekend.

  13. Social media has changed how we communicate. Some readers can’t tell if writers are being funny, sarcastic, serious, or nasty. I try and avoid posts about politics or religion but sometimes I express my thoughts…and often get misunderstood. It’s better for me to stick with humor.

  14. Nancy Hill says:

    Ahm the doors of perception… Did I ever tell you I am a semiotic anthropologist and meaning and the creation of meaning is what I studied ? I love this shit! Language depends on redundancy, channels, and a thousand other things. I am amazed that any real communication ever takes place. It is less frequent than we imagine. I suspect that all we can ever do is be aware of the filters we know about and be open to finding out there are other filters we have used forever that we are only now discovering through self-examination.

  15. I experienced this long before social media when I worked for a newspaper.
    If we all were the same, thought, believed in and liked the same things or looked at things the same way life would be very boring and I think sad.
    Words, paintings, people and yes crimes. How is it so many can see or not see so much.
    This is a very thought provoking past.

  16. Myke Todd says:

    It has been said of me that I am the most cryptic writer on the planet, but that is really not the case, Carol… It is just that, when I write, I write toward a single person or entity, which often alienates the majority of the others who might read… Oddly enough, one of the few poems I ever wrote, that most people fully understood was one I wrote about Anais Nin… Go figure.

  17. My husband every day! Even a written grocery list.

  18. I’ve been misunderstood many times—-in my blogging, my correspondence, etc. and there always seems to be drama involved. I don’t like it when my words are misconstrued, but the words if Anais Nin are dead on correct!

  19. Kay Lou says:

    This was so good. I have had a certain person who felt free to go back to their own f.book page and rant in an “un-named” way about my blog posts. It’s been hurtful, but more than that just baffling to me. If you’ve read my blog at all you know it’s never controversial. It seems this individual takes what I say as a “personal affront”. Sadly for her, she is not the center of my universe. BUT, I turned the tables on myself and said, “Hey, what makes you think it’s all about you? Maybe she’s talking about someone else, hopefully, YOU are NOT the center of her universe either!” also; i minimized her on my feed, so as not to see her comments, whoever she’s commenting about! Thanks for your posts, always a treasure.

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  1. […] create our own meaning as a friend wrote about this past week, but that said, most of us out of the necessity of observing time flow in one […]

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